Commentators have often portrayed the second coming of Jesus as a single dramatic event (Matt. 24:21, 29), following the Great Tribulation, where the Lord will suddenly appear in power and great glory, visible to every eye (Rev. 1:7). The church will be caught up to meet Him and will then return with Him to earth (1 Thess. 4:13-18) where He will judge the living and dead. This either establishes His millennial kingdom or ushers in the new heaven and new earth, depending on which millennial view the commentator holds.
This scenario has numerous difficulties connected with it, however, not least of which are the several promises in the New Testament that the true church will not be present during the Great Tribulation. A key to understanding the teaching of the New Testament on this subject is the Greek word parousia. This word is commonly translated “coming,” which in the mind of the reader projects the vision of the single dramatic appearance described above. But parousia should properly be translated “presence.” This is the meaning given first by both Thayer and Arndt and Gingrich lexicons and includes the idea of an entrance, a consequent duration, and either an exit or a continued presence. It is not, therefore, a single event (V), but a continuum (I– — — — -I) of unspecified duration.
This meaning is the only way to make sense of Jesus’ revelation in Matthew 24 of His return to earth in the last days. There He describes a coming in power and glory immediately following the terrible time of trouble that He calls “the great tribulation” and the darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars from heaven (Matt. 24:28-30). But it would be impossible for such a coming to take anyone by surprise who knew of our Lord’s description. For in the same chapter Jesus speaks of His coming as unexpected and sudden as the flood came upon the people of Noah’s day; and He likens it to a thief creeping into a household at night, without warning, and surreptitiously removing its treasure (vv. 36-44). Yet how could His coming be both unexpected and preceded by such cosmic events of dramatic character?
The only answer is that one passage describes His initial, totally unheralded and unexpected appearing while the other describes the disclosure of His presence by a dramatic display of power and glory after the Tribulation has run its course and the sun, moon, and stars have done their predicted thing.
Jesus’ coming like a thief would be a fulfillment of I Thessalonians 4:13-18: He would catch up His true church to Himself and then remain on earth during all the events of the Tribulation, but the same conditions He manifested during His forty-day post-resurrection ministry when He appeared and disappeared at will. After the darkening of the sun and the moon, He would disclose His presence to the entire earth in fulfillment of Matthew 24:28-30 and Revelation 1:7. Thus His initial, thief-like coming, His continued presence behind the scenes on earth, and His final revelation in power would all be covered by the term parousia. It is noteworthy that where Paul refers to the public revelation of Jesus in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, he calls it “the splendor of his coming” (NIV), which literally means “the epiphaneia (“out-shining”) of his parousia (“presence”).
What happens to the church?
But what happens to the church after it is caught up to meet the Lord in the air, as I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describes? The answer of Scripture is “so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Wherever the Lord is, the church will also be there, sharing with Him in His work whatever it will be. But some may object, “I thought the church was to be in heaven with the Lord.” And indeed it will-but what and where is heaven? It is certainly not another place in the cosmos, within the time-space continuum with which we are familiar. In the light of the new physics of Einstein and others, many are coming to see that heaven is a term for another dimension of existence. It need not be spatially removed from us at all but may be as present on earth as it is anywhere else. When Jesus appeared and disappeared in the course of His post-resurrection ministry, He was simply stepping in and out of the invisible dimension where spiritual realities exist-heaven. Yet all the time He was in some sense on earth, for He said that He had not yet ascended to His Father.
While this may be somewhat speculative and mysterious, it is supported by several passages of Scripture. It simply implies that the church (consisting of believers with glorified bodies) will accompany the Lord in His behind-the-scenes directing of the events of the Tribulation. It is this same church that the apostle John sees under the symbol of a glorious city, coming from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The marriage supper of the Lamb will already have taken place in those invisible realms while the events of the Tribulation rage on earth.
(This was an intriguing and creative way to deal with the obvious problem within current 2nd coming theology which requires a 2nd and 3rd return of Christ. Unfortunately for Stedman, this theory is unsubstantiated and contrived. It is created solely because of the inherent problem created by the theology he embraces).